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For The Birds, It's An Attractive Threat

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

® But experts say a vital Pacific Flyway rest stop is becoming a killing field.

It is big, wet and loaded with food. Countless waves of birds journey thousand of miles over ocean and mountain to find it, establishing the Salton Sea as one of the nation's premier bird sanctuaries and a critical pit stop along the Pacific Flyway.

An egret is reflected in a lake within the Salton Sea ecosystem.
Steve Medd /The Press-Enterprise 

Stephan Sedam-Stone /The Press-Enterprise 

Glistening like a diamond hewn from the desert's rocky canyons and bone-dry playas, the sea stretches out like a 35-mile -long landing strip smack in the middle of the driest part of the flyway. Its pull is irresistible, drawing an average of 2 million travel-weary birds each winter.

It is the last United States stop on the flyway, a strategic jump off point for birds following ancestral migratory routes from the Yukon to Mexico and points farther south. The Salton Sea is one of seven major Western wetlands along the flyway, no less important than the San Francisco Bay, Mono Lake, the Central Valley or Oregon's Klamath Basin, experts say.

One million of the 6 million waterfowl, mostly ducks and geese, that travel the flyway are destined for the Salton Sea, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hundreds of thousands of shore birds, including gulls, sandpipers and avocets, rely on the sea. It has been designated a wetland of international importance for shore birds by the Pacific Flyway Project at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which monitors bird migrations. The Salton Sea is nearly as valuable to shore birds as Chesapeake Bay, the Great Salt Lake and the Copper River Delta in Alaska, said observatory biologist Dave Shuford.

Birds of every conceivable size, shape and squawk can be found at the sea. To date, 380 species have been identified, including bald eagles, flamingos, Canadian geese, roadrunners and yellow-billed cuckoos, to name a few. Only the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas boasts more species diversity.

"If the Salton Sea were just to disappear, we would be at risk of losing vast numbers of migratory birds," said Kimball Garrett, ornithologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "I don't think it would be an exaggeration to call it critically important."

"The sea is one of the major ones (migratory bird habitats) and one of the few remaining ones for Southern California," John Borneman, western regional representative for the national Audubon Society.

But the sea is becoming an attractive nuisance. Pollution looms as a major menace to the birds that reach the sea.

Cracked and dented eggshells, the calling card of DDT poisoning, are routinely found in nests. The toxin is likely contributing to nesting failures seen in great egrets, black-crowned night herons and other colonial water birds, scientists say.

The specter of selenium haunts the Salton Sea, too.

Quantities of the metalloid substance, which is more toxic than arsenic, exceed thresholds known to cause deformities in embryos and chicks.

Geese graze in a field in the Salton Sea wildlife refuge. 

 Steve Medd/The Press-Enterprise  

Selenium destroyed birds at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos a decade ago, although deformities have not been positively identified in Salton sea birds.

Two studies show waterfowl rapidly accumulate toxics during their winter stay at the Salton Sea. Hungry and fatigued after strenuous, long-distance flights, birds gorge themselves on fish and invertebrates once they reach the sea to fatten up for the next leg of their journey. But in the process, they are accumulating dangerous quantities of toxicants, the studies by scientists at the University of California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and UC Davis show.

Fish are a big lure to the sea, but they are dying. Hypersaline Salton Sea water has started to subvert their reproduction, threatening one of the state's richest fisheries with collapse, probably within a decade. Fish-eating birds -- including pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets and ospreys -- will dwindle in numbers, scientists say.

In addition, shooters blast hundreds of birds from the sky each year. Some are taken for game. Others are eradicated as pests, their carcasses sometimes tossed in heaps and burned.

As a result, some of the sea's most abundant species are in sharp decline.

Cattle egrets, snowy egrets, double-crested cormorants and black-crowned night herons no longer nest at the Salton Sea National wildlife Refuge. The number of the great blue herons nesting at the refuge has declined by 95 percent in six years. Across the sea, nesting populations of all the large, fish-eating colonial water birds have fallen sharply in recent years.

"It's a critically important habitat for birds, but it's almost bordering on being an attractive nuisance. As certain toxins buildup, as salinity increases, as agricultural runoff runs off, one worries about the survival of birds that use the sea," Garrett said.

Tragically, even in its compromised condition, the Salton Sea is irreplaceable. There just are not many places like it left anymore.

Development has wiped out 91 percent of California's wetlands, more than any other state in the union. In the 18th century, the state harbored 5 million acres of low-lying marshes, ponds, riparian forest and soggy meadows. Today, 454,000 acres remain, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of the wetlands that remain, many are in sorry shape.

In the arid West, where water must be used twice or more, many wetlands and wildlife refuges, including the Salton Sea, are fed by agricultural runoff. But farm drain water is often loaded with pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, selenium and other compounds hazardous to wildlife.

Stephen Sedam-Stone/The Press Enterprise  

The Fish and Wildlife Service found in a 1990 study that about 60 percent of the nation's 478 refuges had at least one activity harmful to wildlife. Jet skiing, military practice bombing, overgrazing and mining were identified.

"We have a lot of conflicting uses, said Carey Smith, migratory bird coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific region.

All the more reason to keep the Salton Sea healthy, say the scientists. With its miles of shallow bays, three river deltas, nutrient rich alkaline waters, prolific plankton production, a diverse fisher, all surrounded by roughly 3,000 miles of reed-lined canals, the sea is among the best of what is left.

Deterioration of the Salton Sea environment could have a devastating effect on some species.

Take white pelicans, for example. Only 100,000 breeding pairs remain in North America and nearly half of them winter at the sea. In spring, they launch practice flights toward Mt. San Gorgonio, a two-mile high peak north of the sea, and back to the sea in preparation for the arduous mountain crossing and long trip north to Mono Lake and ultimately southern Canada and the pacific Northwest, explained Norm Hogg, biologist at Santa Monica College.

Elimination of the Salton Sea would force the pelicans to begin their return migration from the Gulf of California adding up to another 200 miles to the first leg of the trip and probably assuring some birds will die on the way, Hogg said.

"It's like if you imagine driving from here to Portland without a single gas station or fast food place along the way. You just couldn't make it," Garrett said.

Eared grebes rely heavily on the sea. Of the 2 million grebes in North America, half migrate to the sea from Utah and the Great Basin states.

In January, 150,000 grebes died at the Salton Sea, killing 8 percent of their population in a single swipe, one of the largest bird die-offs in recent U.S. history. Disease, selenium or perhaps both killed the birds, scientists say.

The Salton Sea is California's only inland breeding location for three species -- black skimmers, gull-billed terns and fulvous whistling ducks.

"Birds just don't go from the Canadian arctic to Mexico in one trip. The Salton Sea, Mono Lake and these other bodies of water in the West are crucial. They are vitally important for migration species to use as a stopover."

Bob McKernan, biologist at the San Bernardino County Museum

"If the Salton Sea were gone, there would be no more gull-billed terns" in the state, save a few stragglers blown off course from other migratory routes, said Bob McKernan, biologist at the San Bernardino County Museum. "There just aren't that many places left."

About 100,000 waterfowl converge on the sea every winter. About one in five of all pintail ducks on the Pacific Flyway spend time at the Salton Sea. About 25,000 snow geese leave the Anderson River Delta and Banks Island, Canada, to winter at the sea. Ten thousand ruddy ducks stop over, too.

Five endangered animal species live in the Salton Sea area: bald eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, desert pupfish and the Yuma clapper rail. One third of all the remaining clapper rails are found at the sea.

About 400 snowy plovers, a small tide-trotting bird that camouflages perfectly against sand, inhabit the sea. They are candidate for endangered species protection.

Ross's goose, one of the rarest species of geese in the world, makes its winter home at the sea.

Said McKernan: "Birds just don't go from the Canadian arctic to Mexico in one trip. The Salton Sea, Mono Lake and these other bodies of water in the West are crucial. They are vitally important for migratory species to use as a stopover."

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